EBEBI: WHEN THE HUNTER BECAME THE HUNTED

By NBF News
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On June 1, 2010, 18 members of Bayelsa State House of Assembly including the Speaker, Mr. Werinipre Seibarugu, took a tough stance and decided to commence the process to impeach Deputy-Governor, Mr. Peremobowei Ebebi.

Contrary to earlier posturing by Ebebi and his handlers that the House lacked the courage to take him on, the impeachment notice was signed by the 17 lawmakers, while Ebebi acolyte, Mr. Robert Enogha, was removed as the House Committee Chairman on Information.

The decision to pass another resolution requesting the Chief Judge of the state to set up a seven-man impeachment panel and the setting up of the panel by Justice Kate Abiri even when a suit challenging the impeachment was pending, has left no one in doubt that the lawmakers have placed their hands on the plough and there is no looking back.

Ebebi however, after his initial giddiness on whether to resign or fight back, has opted for the latter.

By fighting back, he is set to take on the Assembly head-on in what could pass as the greatest political battle of his career. Some segments of the state have accused the lawmakers of taking sides in the conflict between Governor Timipre Sylva and his estranged deputy. They allege that the lawmakers were financially induced to elbow out Ebebi from office.

But the lawmakers have dismissed such insinuations by challenging their critics to look at the merit of the impeachable offences leveled against Ebebi, and exercise restraint in rushing to judgment by blaming them. For them, confronting him with a notice of impeachment does not mean he would be removed from office as there is a constitutional provision that allows him to defend himself before any panel and be let off the hook.

As the impeachment process gradually gets to its crescendo with the panel already sitting, Bayelsans wait with bated breath to see if fairness and equity would be followed in removing Ebebi, an architect of three successful impeachments.

Frontiers of war
After much speculations amidst outright dismissal of making any move without securing the nod of the powers that be, the 17 lawmakers with tacit backing from the Speaker served an impeachment notice on Ebebi.

The 17 members are: Mr. Nestor Binabo ( Sagbama) Mr. Obuebite Jonathan (Nembe) Mr. Alfred Egba (Yenagoa) Mr. Walaman Igrubia (Ogbia), Mr. James Ayobegha (Nembe), Mr Konbowei Benson(Kolokuma/ Opokuma), Mr. Fini Angaye (Kolokuma/Opokuma), Mr. Kuroakegha Dorgu (Southern Ijaw) Mr. Fanama Emomotimi ( Sagbama), Mr. Yousou Amalanyo (Brass) Chief Sam Victor Ateke(Brass). Mr. Ebamua Empere( Sagbama), Mr. Hawkins Kalabo( Southern Ijaw), Mr. Nadu Karibo (Ogbia), Mr. Franklin Otele (Yenagoa), Mrs Ruby Benjamin (Brass) and Mr. Noah Opusiri Otobo (Nembe).

The members listed 10 impeachable offences against Ebebi which include that he has willfully deserted his official duties by refusing to attend the weekly state executive council meetings since January 2010. The lawmakers also accused him of not attending state functions without any excuse as well as abandoning his official residence and office without official leave, thereby deliberately neglecting performing the functions which he was elected for.

Ebebi was also alleged to have engaged in a public brawl with the caretaker committee chairman of his local government, Ekeremor and sponsoring demonstrations against Governor Sylva which portrayed the government in bad light and subjected it to public ridicule. Also hung on his neck was the allegation that he was behind the bomb blasts which they allege was an attempt to make the state ungovernable.

Hand of Esau, voice of Jacob?
But some Bayelsans seemed not to be impressed with the action taken by the lawmakers. Dream Bayelsa, a pressure group in the state accused the lawmakers of being financially induced to carry out the impeachment against Ebebi because they have taken sides with Sylva.

The co-ordinator of the group, Mr. Amaebi Clarkson, said the lawmakers' action is likely to heighten the tension in the state, and put the lives of the people at risk. The Civil Liberty Organization (CLO) in a statement signed by its secretary, Mr. Alagoa Morris, expressed concern over the security situation in the state. According to the group, the lawmakers should investigate both the governor and his deputy and demand an apology from the duo for embarrassing the state.

The group maintained that the duo are not more than the state, adding that the lawmakers should follow due process and impeach both since the heat being witnessed in the state is from the duo. The Action Congress (AC) stated that the purported plan to impeach Ebebi smacks of political vendetta. In a statement signed by its Chairman, AC said the action is 'misguided and unjustifiable by a discredited House that failed woefully to exercise its oversight functions most especially on the financial misappropriation of public funds'

But the House Committee Chairman on Information, Mr. Konbowei Benson has picked holes in the allegations that the House was financial induced to serve an impeachment notice on Ebebi. He queried the rationale for jumping into that conclusion, noting that the House has a responsibility to perform its constitutional role by ensuring that elected officers don't betray their oath of office. Benson explained that the House does not need the promptings of Sylva or financially inducement from any quarters to perform its constitutional duties.

He said: 'The public should look at the issues raised in the impeachment notice. Rather we are called names. We have been accused of financial inducement but how can someone bring money because of impeachment. We acted because we had to act. Look at the bomb blasts; we do not need this in Bayelsa'

On the coincidence of the payment of constituency project, at the time the lawmakers commenced impeachment process against Ebebi, Benson noted that there was no big deal in it because the lawmakers would have been given the money since February or March, if not for the state's poor financial situation.

'Constituency project fund, contract payments and releases are not tied to this impeachment plans. As far as I am concerned, constituency projects in the past have always been released between February and March if not for the poor financial situation of the state' he added.

Benson assured Bayelsans that the lawmakers will ensure that due process and rule of law are followed, stressing that serving him an impeachment notice does not mean he has been removed as there is adequate provision for him in the constitution to appear before the panel to defend himself.

Ebebi goes to court
But Ebebi, who had spearheaded three successful impeachments in the past is aware that appearing before the panel is akin to committing political suicide. After being left in the cold by the Presidency, Bayelsa West senatorial district leaders, National Assembly members and some highly placed Bayelsans who were even advising him to resign rather than face the humiliation of impeachment; Ebebi has instituted a court action challenging the impeachment process.

In a suit YHC/201/2010/ filed by Kemasuode Wodu and backed by sworn affidavits from Mr. Aaron Alopka and Argus Dide, both members of the Assembly, Ebebi is asking the court to restrain the lawmakers from forging ahead with the impeachment process. The suit which also joined the state Attorney-General and the Chief Judge is praying the court to declare the whole process taken so far as null and void because he has not been served any impeachment notice contrary to the claims of the lawmakers.

According to him, what the lawmakers want to rely on were two publications on the notice of impeachment published in two dailies. He is praying the court for a declaration that without the presentation of a valid notice of allegations against him to all members of the House, the defendants cannot lawfully and validly remove him from office or commence any proceedings towards his removal.

He is also asking for a declaration that the purported notice of impeachment by the lawmakers is unconstitutional, illegal, null and void, and of no effect whatsoever. Ebebi is also praying the court for an order setting aside the purported impeachment notice and an order setting aside the proceedings of the House which requested the Chief Judge to set up a seven-man panel to investigate him.

He is also asking for an order setting aside any purported appointment or constitution of a panel and an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Chief Judge or his agents or privies from setting up, constituting or inaugurating or swearing in a panel of seven persons to investigate the allegations of gross misconduct. Lastly, he is praying the court for a perpetual injunction restraining the House from acting on any purported report of the panel of seven persons.

But the state government has described the impeachment process against Ebebi as purely a legislative matter.

Reacting to the suit which joined the Attorney-General, the Overseer, Ministry of Information, Orientation and Strategy, Mr. Nathan Egba, said the suit seeks to restrain the House and the Chief Judge from performing their duties in the impeachment process.

While noting that the process of impeachment is clearly spelt out in the 1999 Constitution, Egba said 'as a government', we believe that he has the chance to defend himself before the panel'. He now added a clincher: 'However, because the matter is constitutional, even the Chief Judge does not have a choice but to carry out the resolution of the House of Assembly, which is simply to set up a seven- member panel to look into the allegations in the impeachment notice against the Deputy Governor'.

Also, Mr. Benson said the House would not allow itself to be dragged into a legal tussle with Ebebi because his suit cannot stop the House from backing down on the impeachment process. 'Ebebi has been impeaching people and he knows the process. He has enough time to defend himself before the panel. He cannot forestall the impeachment whether he joins the woman (Chief Judge) or not in the suit' he said.

All eyes on the judiciary
In 2007 when the seat of the Chief Judge became vacant after the death of Justice Joel Igoniwari, some Bayelsans pushed for Justice Margaret Akpomiemen to become the substantive Chief Judge since she was already acting, but others rooted for Justice Kate Abiri who they believed is more qualified as she is from the state.

Those in favour of Akpomiemen had advised Sylva that appointing Abiri was digging his own political grave because of the fact that she is a first cousin to Ebebi, and in case of any tussle, she is likely to pitch her tent with the latter.

Sylva was almost succumbing to pressures and refused to appoint Abiri, plunging the judiciary into crisis with judiciary workers and members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) until their preferred candidate, Abiri inaugurated.

The political scenario, those who opposed Abiri painted was what the state found itself on June 1 when two-third majority of the House decided to remove Ebebi from office and on June 8 requested the Chief Judge to set up the seven-man panel to investigate the allegation of gross misconduct against the deputy governor.

Known for her strict adherence to the rule of law, many Bayelsans believe that she would not allow herself to be pushed to do the biddings of pro-impeachment stakeholders.

However, she is already being put on the spot with many suggesting that her sister, Mrs. Agatha Goma, is being touted as a replacement for Ebebi if the impeachment sails through. With Ebebi filing a suit in which he joined her, lawyers insist that she should stay action in constituting the panel until all the motions on notice are settled.

There was no word on moves to constitute the panel until Bayelsans woke up on Monday to the disclosure that the impeachment panel has already been constituted since June 9, 48 hours before Ebebi filed his suit.

Bayelsans are curious that unlike the 2005 panel set by the late Justice Igoniwari to investigate allegations against former governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha where terms of reference were given to the panel and its Chairman assured that it would be fair, the Abiri panel was inaugurated in secret.

Supporters of Ebebi believe the panel was just constituted due to enormous pressures on Abiri and to confer legitimacy on the panel and knock off Ebebi's suit, it was decided that June 9 should be declared as the inauguration date.

There were also conflicting stories from judiciary sources, as some said the panel has since started work while the Chief Registrar, Mr. Ineikinimi Abraham Uzakah, said it held its inaugural sitting on Monday.

He gave the names of the panel members as D.C Dewingwe, R.N Tapre, Reverend T.Y. Emmanuel, Mrs. Lovinna Gboluseri, Barr. Ukari Oduma, Mrs. Flora Folorunsho and Mr. J.J William-West. Checks conducted indicated that at least three of the panel members are not from Bayelsa. But judiciary sources insist that going by the section 188 sub-section 5, the Chief Judge can appoint any Nigerian so far the person meets all the criteria spelt out in the Constitution.

Uzakah sheds more light: 'We are not bound to announce that we have constituted the panel and we are not bound to inaugurate the panel. Section 188, sub-section 5 of the Constitution should be clear to you on these. All we are doing is not secrecy but to offer protection to the members. It is all for security reasons.'

As it stands now, with the panel extending an invitation to Ebebi to appear before it on June 22 and 23 and with his counsel insisting that the panel is illegal, all eyes are now on the panel to see whether it would follow due process in its work or succumb to a groundswell of pro-impeachment forces who won't mind to sacrifice the reputation of the Judiciary to oust Ebebi.